The British Eccentric, Live and in Public

By Karla Adam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

LONDON -- For three months, the best place to see a British eccentric has been on a 22-foot pedestal in London's Trafalgar Square, where, among other things, nine people have stripped naked.

Created by the popular British sculptor Antony Gormley, the "One & Other" public art exhibit offers ordinary people the opportunity to spend an hour apiece atop a plinth, hoisted there via cherry picker. Participants can do whatever strikes their fancy with whatever props, so long as it's legal.

Like being naked. Sean Robertson, 45, a soft-spoken project manager who works for the government, stripped, then nonchalantly began reading "Treasure Island."

"What else do you do on a Friday evening after work?" he mused at the time, exhibiting the classic understatement at which the British excel.

His voice was sent worldwide on the project's live webstream (http://www.oneandother.co.uk), which helpfully warns unsuspecting visitors that it "may contain offensive content." The site has had 7 million hits and nearly 700,000 unique visitors since the project began in July (it ends Wednesday). The webstream, like the exhibit, runs 24 hours a day, and offers the throngs on Twitter an all-you-can-tweet buffet of conversation topics.

Trafalgar Square is dominated by statues of dead British heroes, icons of past military glory who, unlike Gormley's human statues, aren't apt to sing or shout or swing golf clubs. One wonders: Does a man lying on an enormous pedestal and checking his BlackBerry count as art? And if so, is it any good? What happens when you cede artistic control to hoi polloi?

Critics are divided.

"Gormley's idea is a rich one," said the Guardian's Adrian Searle. "It combines a very old idea about images, and sculptures on plinths in public spaces, with the digital age and the spectacle of reality TV."

Alastair Sooke of the Daily Telegraph said the work "leaves me cold . . . it ignores a brutal truth -- some people are simply more interesting than others."

Some visitors don't seem to care if the acts are interminably dull. "If it's bad, just walk around the block two times and come back an hour later," said Tony Mrsich, 56, visiting from Redwood City, Calif. He liked its democratic nature. "Usually performance is about having a good voice or figure. Here, you only have to have courage to put your name on the list," he said.

In a strange way, many of those who have stripped naked appear to be quiet people, not so much exhibitionists as people celebrating their right to stand on a towering pedestal in chilly weather with no clothes on. (One man recently took a rather elaborate approach to removing his clothes: He peeled off his shirt, slipped on a robe, then undressed under the robe before removing it.)

Britain loves its unusual characters, and some of the "plinthers," as they have been dubbed, have lived up to the billing. A red-tuxedoed swing dancer got the square frolicking along with him at 1 a.m. One man donned a Godzilla costume, built an impressive miniature model of London, then stomped on it. A woman in a yellow dress proclaimed she was a princess and used her hour as a dating advertisement, with her mom down in the square thrusting fliers at potential sons-in-law.

Popular pastimes on the plinth have included promoting causes, from cancer research to ending cruelty against redheads; hosting one-person tea parties; and dancing and singing, often in flamboyant costumes.

"It's been a very British thing, a fascinating microcosm of the weird and wonderful nature of British culture," said John Cassy, director of Sky Arts, a television channel that runs the Web site.

Not everything is destined for a run in the West End. One woman sounded like Bridget Jones might, rambling on about her personal life, but looking deeply embarrassed about it. Others have pushed the boundaries of bearable tedium by simply standing, or sitting or sleeping for their hour. Some are just plain weird, like the man with the 11 p.m. slot on a recent Monday who repeatedly ironed his own body with an unplugged iron.

The British filmmaker Mike Figgis is making a documentary on the project.

He will have plenty of material. More than 34,000 people applied for one of the 2,600 places on the plinth. Participants have to be at least 16 and are filtered by the region they live in, but otherwise are randomly selected.

On a few occasions, selected plinthers have backed out, causing organizers to scramble to their waiting list, which is how Sandy Nairne, director of London's National Portrait Gallery, came to sit on the plinth. He spent his hour sketching the scene.

The plinth was built in 1841 with plans to erect an equestrian statue. But because of lack of funds, it remained empty until 10 years ago, when the mayor's office started commissioning temporary artworks to reside on the plinth.

"It was fun, but quite cold up there," said Robertson, the naked plinther, in an interview afterward. "I don't think the project could run for more than its 100 days. Hypothermia would set in."

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